Sailing the high seas from Santa Cruz to French Polynesia, Sally-Christine Rodgers documents the trials, tribulations and joys of exploring the world by boat
On a remote seashell-strewn beach on Mopelia, one of French Polynesia’s western-most atolls, a gruff man emerged from the jungle wearing a pink sarong, jelly sandals and a hostile demeanor. Slung over both shoulders were two heavy sacks. Dinner: crabes de coco—the pincers of which can break through a finger with one pinch, though they prefer using their claws to bore into coconut shells.
Because of its notoriously treacherous pass, Mopelia is rarely visited by outsiders, but Watsonville resident Sally-Christine Rodgers and her family are not your typical tourists: after sailing 3,000 nautical miles in 15 days, they’d been dropping anchor and paddling in to explore islands that, in many cases, appeared virtually deserted. Mopelia, the last stop on their 53-day journey, was no exception.
The gruff local was named Kalomae, a native Cook Islander who was treated like an outsider by residents—who scratch out a living growing noni fruit, raising oysters for Tahitian pearl farms, and collecting coconuts for commercial trade—despite living on Mopelia year round. Kalomae returned to the beach later that night to share his catch with the Westerners, bringing with him an 18-year-old boy, and the strangers warmed up to each other. Rodgers and her family learned that Mopelia had been recently smashed by a devastating cyclone. Residents of the island took cover in a cistern, but many of those who could not fit inside were killed—including the 18-year-old boy’s entire family.
“That had an impact on me,” says Rodgers. “You meet these people and they tell you their stories and they share their lives with you, and it changes how you are.”
Now, sitting in my backyard as the morning fog loses its battle to the sun, Rodgers is soft spoken, with the tanned skin of an impassioned gardener and deep blue-green eyes that crackle with memories of the sea. Between us sits her book, “Convergence: A Voyage Through French Polynesia,” which illustrates a lifelong dream—her family’s voyage from Santa Cruz to the South Pacific Ocean—and meanders with loving attention through the French Polynesian islands.
I may have passed over the book entirely, had this one detail not caught my attention: all proceeds are donated to marine conservation. Golden Gate Salmon Association, Save Our Shores, Wetlands Watch, UCSC Marine Lab, and the Elkhorn Slough Foundation are just a few of the local organizations to benefit from its sales—which is why you won’t find it on Amazon, only locally at Bookshop Santa Cruz, West Marine and on westmarine.com, which Rodgers’ husband, Randy Repass, started in his garage in 1968.
And so I read the first page. And then another, and another. “Convergence” is a vivid tapestry of photographs of the sea, of subaquatic scenes and coral reefs, and the enchanting islands and natives of the South Pacific—a visual curation that calls out to coffee tables all over the world. But it’s her lucid prose—short vignettes woven with introspection, juicy historical tidbits and skillful observation—that consumes me whole.
“I believe that everyone has a journey within them,” says Rodgers, who was 49 years old when she realized hers. “It may not be sailing across the Pacific, that was my journey. I guess what I wanted to do was to inspire people to look at what their own internal journey may be,” she says. And to push off into that adventure.
“There’s a lot to learn from being in nature, and disconnecting, unplugging, just turning off and allowing yourself to be vulnerable and available to what you have to learn … I’m a dreamer. I wrote it for other dreamers,” she adds, twisting and folding the tag on her tea—not out of anxiety, but because, I’ve recognized by now, she’s one of those people who likes to touch and feel things, get her hands dirty—explore.
It was Rodgers’ late father who is responsible for her lifelong pull to the South Seas. As a young girl, he filled her head with stories from his time at sea during the ’30s and ’40s, when he worked on passenger liners sailing the first commercial routes to Hawaii, Tahiti, Samoa, Fiji, New Zealand and Australia. Her parents had a Tahiti ketch, a double-ended wooden boat designed by John Hannah.
“Those were my very first memories, of being on the water,” says Rodgers, who worked at Harbor Marine through college at UCSC, then went on to start the first woman-owned company in the marine industry to sell commercial gear in Oregon, Washington and Alaska, before returning to Santa Cruz and marrying Repass.
Though she’s sailed on all kinds of boats all over the world, including crossing the Pacific twice to Hawaii, the trip to French Polynesia was of deep sentimental value. By retracing her father’s passages, Rodgers hoped to better understand him, and in turn, to better understand herself. “Yearning for this connection, I fantasized that in some strange time warp I might suddenly meet him as a young man in these islands that he loved,” Rodgers writes.
“A strange phenomenon occurs at sea. Life happens one day at a time. The past is of no consequence, the future resides in the unknown, and reality is sharpened every moment.”
The voyage detailed in the book began with the ceremonial tossing of a lei into the water outside the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor in June of 2004. Onboard with Rodgers was her husband Randy Repass, their 9-year-old son, Kent-Harris, and another local family: Jim Foley, ex-firefighter and pioneer of the first short surfboard, his wife Linda Moore, an ichthyologist, and their towheaded 4-year-old twins, Trevor and Dana. But the idyllic departure quickly gave way to the raw power of nature: a surprise storm which sent waves breaking over Convergence.
In retrospect, Rodgers thinks those first few days of sheer terror and debilitating seasickness, trapped in the jaws of a southerly storm, could have been avoided if they had monitored the weather—something they now do religiously while at sea.
On the other hand, “that’s what makes it an adventure,” she says. “I mean, there are moments that are uncomfortable for sure, but getting through those moments connects you, and you feel like you’ve used your skills, and you rely on each other, and you take care of each other.” It’s a confidence that is hard won.
Fifteen days later, (a record time, indeed), Convergence arrived in the Marquesas in one piece, much to the elation of her crew. Remarkably, the relationships onboard were also still intact. Being at sea will reveal one’s true character, Rodgers says. It also has the power to test patience and splinter all but the strongest of bonds like so many timber masts throughout history.
But the immense power of the ocean has more positive impacts on its explorers than destructive ones, Rodgers says, and it has deepened and strengthened her relationship with her husband and child. Exhibit A: Her now-20-year-old son still loves to hang out with his parents. Of course, there is a boat involved.
“Being on the water is fun, it bonds your family in a way that is just different than on land,” she says, and playfully urges me to get down to the harbor and onto something that floats as soon as possible to see for myself.
“It doesn’t have to be an epic journey,” she says. It is more accessible than that: there’s paddle boarding, or kayaking, or a dinghy ride or fishing trip, a cruise on the Chardonnay—even just a walk on the beach. “Somehow, that interconnectedness that we have with the water comes into close focus when we’re near it, when we’re on it.”
“Sparks of phosphorescence look like ships on the horizon. But night after night, the radar holds us in the center of its universe. We are alone.” — ‘Convergence’
The great Polynesian migrations took place around 1500 BC—a time when the stars, reflected in water-filled coconut shells, served as navigational tools, and a journey’s outcome was never guaranteed.
Perhaps it’s the incredible bravery and undeniable skill of these early seafarers, Rodgers suggests, that explains the reputation for generosity and welcoming held by today’s island cultures of the South Pacific. The best example, she says, is when she thanked a Marquesan woman for her hospitality, and she replied, “It is nothing. It is our tradition. We always welcome those who sail here, for long ago, our ancestors also came from the sea, and we understand.”
“That was so deep for me,” Rodgers says. “In contrast, Western culture tends to be skeptical; foreigners are suspect. I try to imagine dark-skinned islanders arriving in my backyard, hungry and curious about my lifestyle.”
Just 67 of the 118 islands and atolls that make up present-day French Polynesia are said to be inhabited, and the Convergence made dozens of stops, touring forgotten nooks and crannies.
“As of 2012, Taou Atoll had about 18 inhabitants. It appeared that no one was there at the time we visited. They may have been away or there were just fewer people then,” says Rodgers, who digs deep into the history, culture, flora and fauna of each island she visits.
The journey took on a surreal quality as Convergence island-hopped through the Marquesas, southwest through the Tuamotu Archipelago, south to Tahiti and Moorea, then northwest to Bora Bora, up to Maupiti and eventually to their final stop at Mopelia.
In her book, she observes everything from the flowers the men and women wear in their hair every day to the extra-long mailboxes on Raiatea, which await baguette deliveries each morning. But she was also invited into homes where she was shown entire family photo albums and taught to weave palm fronds or cook breadfruit—a starchy potato-like fruit that is a staple in the islands, and also happens to expand in your stomach and make you feel bloated for a week, says Rodgers. And she explored, sometimes all alone, doing things like attending a one-room church with the locals in the tiny village of Apooiti.
“Long-distance sailing begins as an adventure, transforms into a meditation, and resolves as a life lesson. At sea, insignificance takes on personal meaning. Self-sufficiency underscores everything you do. ” — Convergence
While she has always loved sailing, Rodgers realized on this trip that what she loves even more is dropping anchor. In more than one anchorage, Rodgers and her family were lured from their boat by the drumbeats and calls of the locals, to sit on the outskirts and watch the villagers dance barefoot into the night.
“We met all these kids and all these families, and we learned and were invited to participate in village life, and that was spectacular, because we came to understand a whole different philosophy about how to interact,” says Rodgers. “In village life, everyone is accepted, everyone is a part of the village. Whereas here, we’re all about distinction and separation.”
One thing about cruising families, Rodgers tells me—and yes, it’s a thing; a subculture of families from all over the world who spend long voyages, if not entire lives, circumnavigating the globe by sea—is that the “cruising kids” act as natural ambassadors. Children of all ages play together in anchorages. And while cruising kids may never crack open a textbook, she says, they learn so much about the world.
But the remote paradise she captures in the islands is not untouched by Western culture. Kids wear the baggy pants and backward hats of our familiar pop culture. And the detritus of globalism can be found even in the most remote islands.
“Not long ago, these dumps would have been filled with fish bones, shells, and bio-degradable vegetal debris,” Rodgers writes of a town dump on the island of Raiatea. “Today, plastic, waste, aluminum cans, and car parts take their place.”
Plastic was seen in the middle of the ocean and littered across the most remote beaches thousands of miles from land, says Rodgers. Indeed, plastic is one of the ocean’s most devastating contaminates—every square mile of ocean contains 46,000 pieces of floating plastic, according to a United Nations Environment Program study estimate. The alarming figure begs the question: Do you really need to buy that plastic bottle or can you reach for an alternative? A study from Scripps Institution of Oceanography estimates that fish in the intermediate ocean depth of the North Pacific ingest roughly 12,000 to 24,000 tons of plastic per year—another troubling fact, especially when seafood is the primary source of protein for a billion people.
On the boat, Rodgers is mindful of their garbage. Before leaving land, she took everything out of its containers, and packed food into Tupperware and Seal-a-Meal packages, which can be resealed after opening to cut down on garbage production. She’s also taken to bringing organic fertilizer onboard to grow sunflower sprouts.
“I think what’s really important to me is to be mindful that this is our life support system, and it’s in big trouble,” says Rodgers. “The realities are much graver than I even realized, and I’ve been working in Marine Conservation for decades. I think what you know to be true when you’re sitting on land and what you observe when you’re thousands of miles from land, is startling. I’m not a scientist, I have no credential to fall on in terms of expertise, I’m simply an observer. But most people don’t get to the places that we’ve been. And so I feel like my observations, our observations, have merit, and need to be heeded.”
“Sighting of life over these thousands of miles at sea has been negligible. This gives me pause. On a sea that should be teeming, we have seen little sea life and few pelagic birds.” — ‘Convergence’
In 1982, Rodgers sailed in the Victoria to Maui race—from Victoria, Canada, to Hawaii, and she was struck by the abundance of sea life on that trip. “We saw whales, we saw turtles, sharks, all kinds of pelagic birds, fish, dolphins, it was abundant,” she says. In 1988, she sailed to Hawaii again, from San Francisco to Kaneohe Bay. “And it was just quiet out there,” she says. Rodgers is not alone in pointing to the impact of drift netting for taking such a significant toll on marine life, and got involved in the International Drift Net Ban soon after she returned home.
Drift netting remains a common practice for many fisheries in the world—and, yes, this also applies to fish we buy at local stores: 90 percent of the seafood sold in the U.S. is imported, and much of it comes from countries that don’t adhere to our own national fishing regulations.
“What happens with drift netting is that it’s deployed, and it’s just left out there for a long period of time, and it’s indiscriminate, so it catches anything. It can catch a sea turtle, it can catch a whale, it can catch a dolphin, it can catch a shark,” says Rodgers. “And then what happens in big seas is that they become dislodged, the boats can’t get back to them, they become ghost drift nets, which means they’re out there killing forever.”
Observing the industrial fishing practice first-hand was an eye-opening experience. Longliner boats, for instance, send out miles and miles of filament lines, with thousands of indiscriminate hooks, resulting in a tremendous quantity of bycatch—of fish and also seabirds—that is swept overboard dead and dying. At one point in their crossing, a longliner boat charged Convergence—an act of aggressive warning, perhaps showing that they did not want to be observed. Rodgers doesn’t want to tell anyone how to eat, but encourages people to buy sustainably caught fish.
“When I was a kid, it was so different than what it is now, in terms of its diversity, its vitality, the quantity, and so that gives me pause,” Rodgers says.
Bottom trawling has also taken its toll, where tires and chains are dragged across the ocean floor and scoop up every form of life in their path—it’s like “clear-cutting the forest to kill a few squirrels,” says Rodgers. “It clears the bottom of all the sponges and corals and the benthic habitat.”
There are many healthy places, assures Rodgers. “But everywhere we went, we saw the decline due to pollution, agricultural run-off and increased water temperatures. The degradation of coral reefs thousands of miles away was shocking, really.” Rodgers and her family snorkeled whenever they could, and saw the difference between healthy, radiant coral reefs and depleted ones, which appear bleached, dead, or broken. “The coral reefs are so important because they’re the nursery habitat of the ocean,” says Rodgers. “A quarter of the species of the sea are in coral reef areas, so that’s a huge number, and they’re being impacted.” Erosion and overfishing play a role, but the primary threat is ocean acidification, which reduces the capacity for corals, shellfish, and plankton—the very base of the food chain—to grow shells.
“But what was so cool is that I got to share this with our children, my son, and really up close and personal,” says Rodgers. “We got to experience the magic and the beauty of being out there, and also see these realities.”
Rodgers is ultimately optimistic that as humanity becomes more aware of the dire state of the oceans, they will respond. “Humans respond to crisis, I think, but often they don’t respond until just the brink of crisis,” says Rodgers. “And that’s why I wrote about it. And I wrote about it from the point of view not as a scientist, but as a mother. You know, we really need to step up here. We’ve got children that want to have a future.”
“Convergence: A Voyage Through French Polynesia” is available at Bookshop Santa Cruz, West Marine on 17th Avenue, and on westmarine.com. See convergencevoyages.com for events, marine conservation details and more.